Waterloo for the anti-anti-Trump left (and all other normalizers): You knew he was a snake

Those who made their peace with Trump all made the same fatal mistake: Believing that he believed in anything

Published January 6, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Donald Trump (AP Photo/Salon)
Donald Trump (AP Photo/Salon)

If consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, as Emerson famously observed, then maybe Donald Trump really is the "stable genius" he has proclaimed himself. Certainly our president's vanity and narcissism are such that he'd enjoy seeing himself on Emerson's list of the great and misunderstood giants of history: "Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh." At least, Trump might appreciate that if he knew who even half those people were. Or if he could read.

There are other, more plausible explanations for Trump's behavior, of course. Such as that his greatness is entirely in his own mind, and that he barely recognizes other people or the outside world as real. He is a damaged, impulsive man-child whose pathologies distill many of the worst pathologies of the nation that (more or less) elected him. So many judgments of Trump — from those who love him, those who hate him and those who have ridden along and made their peace with him for various reasons — were built on the faulty premise that he could be predicted or controlled, or at least that he was guided by some recognizable ideology.

Nearly all of us, frankly, have been guilty of that to some degree. In this moment of crisis, I think we all owe a debt to NeverTrump conservatives like Tom Nichols and Rick Wilson, and to mental health professionals like Dr. Bandy Lee, Dr. Lance Dodes, Dr. John Gartner and others, who have consistently warned that Trump was unstable and unpredictable, and at some stage was likely to endanger the safety of not just the United States but the entire world. Well, here we are.

Last week's drone assassination of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad, as most humans outside the robot-Republican chorus would agree, was a reckless, radical act that risks all-out war between the U.S. and Iran and dramatically ramps up the atmosphere of tension and chaos throughout the Middle East. It has already united the fractious Iranian population against the U.S., drawing that nation's largest crowds since the election protests of 2009, and provoked the Iraqi government to demand that American troops leave their country. Everyone expects Iran to pursue some form of violent reprisal, and over the weekend Trump threatened to destroy sensitive cultural sites in Iran if that happens. That would certainly be a war crime, but then this is a president who ran for office openly praising war crimes and yearning to commit some of his own.

In other words, all of this was predictable. All of us were basically crossing our fingers and hoping that this dangerously unstable president could get through a four-year term without sparking or exacerbating a major international crisis. That was a foolish hope. According to a New York Times report published on Saturday, Pentagon officials proposed a hit on Soleimani to Trump as the most extreme option on a list of possible military responses to attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad by pro-Iranian militants.

If that's true it was a dreadfully bad bet, and now those ever-so-smart and grown-up war planners have stepped in the shit. There was no reason to be so surprised when, at random or by process of elimination, finally wanted to see a fireworks show. Both George W. Bush, who ordered the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and Barack Obama, who ordered the drone killings of U.S. citizens on secret evidence, had reportedly considered targeting Soleimani but decided against it.

Trump's decision shocked the world, although as I say, it really shouldn't have. You have to assume that was a major point in its favor, in the president's shrunken-hobgoblin mind. To the extent he thinks strategically at all, he wants to keep his foes and critics off balance, and simply is not capable of looking beyond the immediate consequences.

The Soleimani assassination also flew in the face of the widespread perception — found on the far left, the far right and among the above-it-all pundits of the center — that Trump is a non-interventionist or isolationist with a constitutional aversion to endless war overseas. As Mehdi Hasan summarizes in an appropriately outraged response for The Intercept, this was everywhere and it was always hogwash, going back to "the most unforgivable take of the 2016 presidential race," Maureen Dowd's Times column from May of that year headlined "Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk."

Hasan marshals considerable evidence that this interpretation of Trump was "wholly, utterly, and embarrassingly wrong," yet for reasons that are difficult to capture with precision, it has gotten stuck in the collective brain of the media caste like an unkillable parasite. In an article on the Baghdad embassy crisis published Dec. 31, the Times referred to "the president’s reluctance to use force in the Middle East" as if it were a fact universally understood. There's no mistaking the faint tone of clerical disapproval in that phrase; nothing seems more "presidential" to the top-shelf journalists who whisper back and forth with the national-security mandarins and spook overlords than a willingness to kill dark-skinned people for unclear reasons in some distant place.

On the left, and especially on what might be termed the anti-imperialist, internationalist radical left, Trump's alleged distaste for military intervention — and the displeasure it provoked among the mainstream media and the neocon Republican establishment — worked a special kind of dark magic. Although foreign policy didn't play a major role in either the 2016 Democratic campaign or the general election, many leftists and liberals (along with a few people on the far right) distrusted Hillary Clinton for what — even now! — I would argue were valid reasons.

Clinton's credentials as a medium-hawkish Cold War-style Democrat were well established from her time at the State Department, and indeed long before that. It has been widely reported that she argued for full-on U.S. military intervention in Syria, for example (while Vice President Joe Biden counseled against it). I've personally heard prominent figures in the Obama White House tell reporters, off the record, that they were concerned that a future President Clinton might endanger the rickety and tentative edifice of peace (or at least not-quite-war) they had struggled to construct in the Middle East.

Out of these dark materials was born the "anti-anti-Trump left," which was of course also nourished by leftist dislike for the entire Clinton enterprise, which had conquered the Democratic Party in the early 1990s and driven it toward Wall Street money, endless strategic triangulation and a renunciation of the welfare state and progressive economics. And yes, also by the vicious misogyny directed at Hillary Clinton throughout her career in public life. You didn't have to like her one bit to understand how much that contaminated everything about the 2016 election.

So the worldview of the anti-anti-Trump left had a certain coherence that wasn't entirely superficial. Let me be clear, for example, that I generally share the view Russia scandal and the Mueller investigation were wildly overblown by Democrats (and MSNBC hosts) eager for any excuse not to address their party's spectacular failures, and that liberals, not too long into the future, will be forced to repent of their Trump-era love affair with the CIA and FBI. (Surely among the most bizarre turnabouts of a topsy-turvy age.) I believe one of the unspoken underlying narratives of the Ukraine scandal is that Trump's misconduct accidentally endangered an overtly belligerent U.S. foreign policy that no one involved is eager to explain to the public.

That coherence was compromised, however, by a self-gaslighting willingness to treat certain things that Trump said seriously while ignoring others. When he campaigned against endless war or promised dialogue with Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, he was rejecting failed orthodoxy and opening new possibilities. When he promised to bring back waterboarding (and improve on it), asked why tactical nuclear weapons were off limits, or bragged about taking oil from conquered nations or shooting Muslim prisoners with bullets dipped in pig's blood, it was just "locker room talk," to coin a phrase.

In the approximate view of the AATL, electing a pseudo-fascist buffoon as president was arguably preferable to electing a neoliberal warmonger — and might, over the long haul, lead to productive changes in the global balance of power. I've written about this previously, in August of 2018, arguing that, on one hand, the anti-anti-Trump left believed that

Trump’s chaotic nationalism would create at least a momentary rupture in the hegemonic world order dominated by the United States — so far, so good! — which might be better overall for the future of the planet than the continuation of the “Washington consensus” under Clinton. On the other, they suspected the brutal proto-fascism of a Trump presidency might spark renewed resistance on the left and force the political establishment into major reforms.

You can kind of sum it up by saying that [such leftists] believed that America was already so screwed up that a Trump presidency might actually open a pathway to making things better, whereas a Clinton presidency would only make the bad stuff worse. It’s a debatable proposition at best, clearly akin to the old Marxist notion that you had to “heighten the contradictions” of capitalism in order to create the conditions for revolutionary change.

This was almost exactly what lured Julian Assange, patron saint of the AATL, into waging a campaign of sabotage against Hillary Clinton in 2016, either directly or indirectly in concert with Russian hackers eager to aid Trump. As I argued when Assange was arrested last spring, I think it's mistaken to conclude that he felt any particular affection for either Trump or Putin.

If anything, he may have convinced himself he was manipulating them, rather than the other way around. He loathed Clinton for both personal and political reasons ... and seduced himself into the radical-nihilist position that Trump and Putin were preferable enemies-of-his-enemies, if only because they might accelerate an existential crisis within the national-security states of the neoliberal Western order, et cetera. He was partly right, at least about that last part, but I don’t imagine that’s much comfort right now.

Oddly enough, the thinking of the AATL intersected with the banal Beltway view that Trump could be trained to be "presidential," or could at any rate be contained or supervised, like a poorly trained Schnauzer, by his initial cadre of generals or a White House staffed with savvy adult insiders or some other clichéd vision of competence. Both approaches rested on contradictory but overlapping assessments of Trump's character and intentions: On one hand, he was laughably incompetent and could be controlled; on the other, the "Man in the High Castle" vision that Trump imbibed from Steve Bannon, with its promise of a reindustrialized, white-dominated nation pretty much decoupled from the outside world, was something he actually believed in and had thought about.

None of that was true. It should be obvious by now that Trump's primary concern is his own glorification, and the closest thing he has to a political or social vision is incoherent racist paranoia mingled with fantasies of violent retribution. It might be accurate to say he longs to recreate a world in which America is an unchallenged hegemonic power, except without engaging in any of the messy and demoralizing warfare of the last 60 years. That can only lead to catastrophe, which is where his presidency has been heading from Day One.

In the words of the poem Trump likes to recite to audiences at his campaign rallies — the only literary work he appears to know well — we knew he was a snake before we took him in. A push-button assassination that throws the world into chaos, with little thought of what may follow, is not a departure from Trump's policy vision or a sign that he has been seduced and conquered by the neocons. It's exactly the kind of thing he's been longing to do ever since he took office, and now that he's gotten a taste of it, more will surely follow. Everyone who has normalized him, made excuses for him, laughed at him, pitied him or talked themselves into believing he was a blessing in disguise owns a share of this disaster. I'm pretty sure that's all of us.



By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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